MULTI-SIDED WAR: 22 civilians were killed in heavy Turkish shelling and air strikes –
ANKARA/BEIRUT: Turkey seeks to avoid any clash with US, Russian or Syrian forces, but will take any steps needed for its security, a Turkish minister said on Tuesday, the
fourth day of an air and ground offensive against Kurdish forces in northwest Syria.
The United States and Russia both have military forces in Syria and have urged Turkey to show restraint in its campaign, Operation Olive Branch, to crush the US-backed Kurdish YPG in the Afrin region on Turkey’s southern border.
The operation has opened a new front in Syria’s multi-sided civil war and could threaten US plans to stabilise and rebuild a large area of northeast Syria — beyond President Bashar al Assad’s control — where the United States helped the YPG drive out IS fighters.
Turkey’s military, the second largest in Nato, has conducted air strikes and artillery barrages against targets in Afrin, and its soldiers and allied Syrian rebels have tried to push into the Kurdish-held district from west, north and eastern flanks.
With heavy cloud hindering air support in the last 24 hours, advances have been limited and Kurdish fighters have retaken some territory.
Turkish troops and the Syrian fighters have been trying to take the summit of Bursaya Hill, overlooking the eastern approach to Afrin town.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said 22 civilians had been killed in Turkish shelling and air strikes, and thousands were fleeing the fighting.
However, Syrian government forces were preventing people from crossing government-held checkpoints to reach the Kurdish-held districts of nearby Aleppo city, it said.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday Turkey’s offensive was distracting from efforts to defeat IS.
Ankara says the group is largely finished in Syria and that the greater threat comes from the YPG, which it sees as an extension of a Kurdish group that has waged a decades-long separatist insurgency inside Turkish own borders.
President Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey aims to destroy YPG control not just in the Afrin enclave, but also in the mainly Arab town of Manbij to the east.
“Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots. If the United States doesn’t stop this, we will stop it,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was reported as saying on Tuesday.
“Our goal is not to clash with Russians, the Syrian regime or the United States, it is to battle the terrorist organisation,” broadcaster Haberturk quoted him as saying.
“I must take whatever step I have to. If not, our future as a country is in jeopardy tomorrow. We are not afraid of anyone on this, we are determined… We will not live with fear and threats,” Cavusoglu said.
He later tweeted that a lieutenant had become the second Turkish soldier to be killed in the operation.